Wednesday 21 February 2018

Last night’s TV: Crisis: Inside The Cowen Government

The documentary suffered badly from the absence of any key members of Cowen’s government says Diarmuid Doyle

Crisis: Inside The Cowen Government (RTE1) may have been an attempt to record the implosion of the Fianna Fail/Green coalition, but it very quickly became an exercise in avoiding blame. Never have so many people been so wise after an event.

The bank guarantee should not have been introduced at 1.40am, Mary Hanafin assured us, three years after voting for it.

Willie O’Dea wasn’t keen either, “but I wasn’t in a position to argue with anyone…I didn’t have anyone to argue with”.

John Gormley and Eamon Ryan spoke as though the guarantee was something bad that had happened to them, over which they had no control. “I didn’t do it, nobody saw me do it, you can’t prove a thing”, they almost chorused.

The documentary, the first of a two-parter, suffered badly from the absence of any key members of Cowen’s government.

The former Taoiseach was nowhere to be seen, and was defended by his brother Barry, who was presumably tucked up in bed when the guarantee was being introduced. Cowen’s constituency colleague John Maloney remains a loyalist, but knows little about what went on in government.

Mary Coughlan, portrayed in the documentary as an economic illiterate, somebody who couldn’t tell a credit default swap from a car boot sale, also felt unable to defend herself.

Brian Lenihan isn’t around to explain himself either and wasn’t helped by his former advisor Alan Ahearne, whose hero worship of the former finance minister is becoming embarrassing. “He was like a general in a war”, he said.

The result was an imbalanced documentary, which told us little we didn’t know already. Its most devastating revelation was about David McWilliams’s support for the bank guarantee.

McWilliams advised Lenihan to introduce a guarantee, but when it became clear that the decision had backfired with spectacularly destructive long-term results for Ireland, he modified his story a little.

What he had recommended, he claimed, was only a temporary little arrangement, not the blanket, permanent guarantee we got.

In last night’s documentary, John Gormley recalled turning to Lenihan on the night the decision was made and asking: “are we going with the David McWilliams option?” Lenihan said yes. It was clear that whatever McWilliams thinks he said to Lenihan, Lenihan heard something entirely different.

Other than that, there wasn’t much in the documentary to make you go wow. Many of the contributors had plenty of interest to say, but were too removed from the heart of government for their contributions to be anything more than entertaining gossip.

Cowen’s drinking was discussed – although the Garglegate controversy over his Morning Ireland interview was held over until next week.

Mary O’Rourke suggested that Cowen was very shy. “Maybe the drink helped…and brought him back to a happier time”.

There did seem to be kind of drinking club around Cowen, which was dangerous, not because of the alcohol, but because of the possibility that the advice and feedback he was getting was limited to his beer buddies, none of them the sharpest tool in the Fianna Fail shed.

In any event, Cowen hadn’t a clue what to do when things started to go badly wrong.

Crisis… featured an array of photographs of the former Taoiseach looking puzzled, perplexed, pissed, pissed off and punch drunk – a poor communicator who, as he sang to the people of Offaly from the back of a lorry on the night he was elected Taoiseach, “did it my way”.

Former Fianna Fail TD, Mattie McGrath, one of the first to desert the sinking ship and become an Independent, suggested a state of the nation speech would have helped Cowen’s cause with the people, but that, as Barry Cowen, acknowledged, “wasn’t his style”.

Mary O Rourke wasn’t so sure this approach would have worked, referring to all the great speeches Cowen was supposed to have made that “we were never at”. With friends like that…

The result was one crisis after another, beginning with the rejection of the first Lisbon Treaty, and including the guarantee and the row with pensioners over attempts (entirely justified, it seems) to cut medical card privileges for some of them.

It got to the stage, said former defence minister Pat Carey, that he started to wonder “which group have we not insulted yet”.

Crisis.. was a roughly chronological account of all those insults, although it did take a little detour into history to examine an Ard Fheis speech made by Bertie Ahern, in which he made several costly promises to the Irish people at a time when his government was supposed to be in cutback mode.

It was a worthwhile reminder that whatever your thoughts on Cowen, the damage he did to Ireland was not rendered alone.

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